Reading in the Larch at Simon Balle All-through School

A child’s reading journey begins with ‘learning to read’ and moves into ‘reading to learn’ (Oxford Owl)

One thing we have been sure about for some time is that reading, and learning to read, is complex. Some literature, schemes or programmes attempt to paint a simple picture of what is required (perhaps with the intention of more easily selling their product!) but what they often do is teach one aspect or too few, perhaps separately, of what is required in a child’s reading journey. As set out in the blog ‘What do we mean when we talk about reading (and writing) fluency?’, what is needed is to attend to the increasingly interwoven threads of reading as the developing reader progresses towards proficient, integrated reading. Our aim as a school is to identify all of those threads, and then consider the sequencing, progression and interweaving of them, such that children master and can apply all aspects of what it is to be an expert reader: for learning, for life and for enjoyment.

The simple view of reading is organised along two continuums: language comprehension processes and word recognition skills. Both have to be at play for reading to happen.  It is a multiplicative model. If one aspect is missing, the effect of multiplying by 0 holds true. The act of reading has to include both the act of decoding words and understanding what the words, phrases, clauses, sentences (or lines and verses, say) come together to mean.

The idea of decoding and comprehension is not new to schools. But our aim at Simon Balle is to consider in much more depth how both are taught and to what extent the component parts of each have been learned (by which I mean understood and applied in all reading in all subjects). 


After much deliberation we have decided to base our ten strands of the art of teaching reading at Simon Balle on Kate Cain’s model (Lancaster University).


Of this model, Galway (2019) writes that this representation is carefully constructed to work up from the ground floor with the implicit understanding that each successive storey rests on those lower down. Two things strike me: firstly, that the pinnacle of reading will only be achieved where teaching is secure in all other areas; secondly, and I hope I am not pushing the analogy too far here, that we are going to need to ascend and descend (on repeat!) a lot of stairs to support reading mastery over time giving due attention to each part (and recognising that the emphasis needed for teaching which part and when will differ from cohort to cohort, group to group, and child by child). 


It is essential for us at Simon Balle that, in all areas and certainly not just reading, home and school work in close partnership. And yet, it seems to me that reading might be one of the most important areas in which it is essential for this partnership to work well. 


Though the process of teaching and learning to read is complex, our aim is simple. We aspire for all of our children to achieve fluent reading as quickly as possible, because where this reading is efficient, readers can focus on the meaning of what they are reading. It is this that has the potential to open every possible door in their future learning and in life.


We are indebted to the English team at Herts for Learning, whose blog ‘What do we mean when we talk about reading (and writing) fluency?’, published 2 October 2019, has inspired us as a staff, invited us to read and research further, and shaped our thinking around the teaching of reading in the Larch at Simon Balle.


Appendix One: a glossary of phonics terms

How do we teach reading at Simon Balle? Our ten strands. 

Please note that these ten strands are not written in this order to imply that it is a straight pathway through. Whilst the first bullet points are undoubtedly needed at the early stages, the process is not linear. 

Phonics is taught systematically from day one of Reception at Simon Balle (and indeed throughout Nursery provision at Busy Lizzies if children attend Nursery on site). The whole-class teaching of phonics is valued, where all children are supported to reach at least age-related expectations. Additional group and individual provision supports and challenges learners. Careful attention is paid to medium term planning to ensure an appropriate pace of learning. Regular assessments ensure that children have understood, and can remember and apply their phonics. Teachers’ subject knowledge is advanced in order to anticipate misconceptions: for example: upper and lower case letters must both be taught. Sufficient time is needed for those concepts that take longer to embed (for example, consonant clusters and split digraphs). See appendix one below for a phonics glossary of terms.

‘Tricky’ words are introduced similarly from the very beginning of Reception. Children are taught to recognise less common and rare spellings, and to use what they do know to support word reading.

It is important to distinguish between teaching children to read, and allowing time for children to practice reading. The latter is very important, both at home and at school. Our reading scheme at Simon Balle has been created by us, taking the very best of published schemes and combining them. We believe that when children are learning to read, it is essential that their practice books are at precisely the right level for their acquisition of phonics (the sounds that they can recall with ease) and their recognition of words (automaticity in word reading).

Reading fluency is our aim for all children. Therefore, this must be modelled. We teach reading through the whole-class modelling of reading. This process is active and it values reading aloud: showing how to take account of grammar and syntax, for example, when reading. It is only when learners can read aloud demonstrating this understanding, that the internal processes of reading in one’s head can work sufficiently well to truly comprehend a text. This means much more than just pausing at full stops! Children need to be taught where to pause, to add emphasis, to speed up or to slow down. We are introducing this approach as a group taught activity where children may need further support in reading, as well as with whole classes.

At Simon Balle, our Literary canon is made up of a range of literature for each year group which we believe it is essential for children to be exposed to. This is partly just because they are excellent books (and we make no excuses for this!). The following have also been used in selecting texts: 

  • Lexile ratings. This can help to guide us to ensure that children are exposed to books which are sufficiently complex (considering vocabulary and sentence structure, for example).
  • Breadth (for example, the value of picture books for inference, cultural and historical significance, the genre of texts to support application to writing). 
  • A knowledge of authors and children’s fiction (today and over time). 

           Where possible our Literary canon links to at least one annual trip to the theatre to experience literature alive on the stage. 

It is debatable whether comprehension can be taught. What is important in our view is that the process of reading includes guidance for what one might think as one reads: ‘think aloud’ is a powerful way that the whole-class can be taught about reading. Strategies for checking one’s own comprehension can be modelled, and then supported. From Reception, children are taught to story map a text - the impact is powerful in children’s ability to recall and sequence their reading. Through key stages one and two, children are given opportunities to respond to questions orally and in writing. These questions relate to:

  • Inference (particular emphasis)
  • Retrieval (particular emphasis)
  • Vocabulary
  • Summarising
  • Predicting 
  • Comparing, contrasting and commenting

           The two areas of retrieval and inference require particular focus. These aspects of the content domains feature most highly in KS1and KS2 reading SATs assessments.

We are passionate about ensuring that every child has the opportunity to practice  comprehension at a pitch which is at least age-related. Regardless of phonics or decoding, children learn through listening comprehension and structural knowledge of texts. Each child from Year 1 up has a bookmark with questions relating to each of the content domains above: these are used when a child reads at home and in school. The focus of questions becomes increasingly challenging in each year group.

Vocabulary is Introduced explicitly in each subject of the curriculum. Classroom environments are considered crucial spaces for the gathering of new words - for example, through working walls. Word of the day books is just one example of the ways in which we teach vocabulary.

We value the teaching of reading in all subjects. Reading material must be introduced with care, such that it is of a high quality, and of the right pitch to be both supportive and challenging (considering phonics, or word reading, or listening comprehension etc as relevant). Consideration is given to the reading process and the knowledge content of the specific subject taught.

We believe that readers must be taught to become increasingly independent. There are practical aspects to this: for example, children visit the Larch library weekly, and are guided to select books which they can borrow. In key stage two, there are opportunities to visit the library and/or to read during lunchtimes and during extra-curricular activities.

This is last but no means least! Impact is possibly the hardest to measure in this area,  yet few would dispute its value. From child-initiated learning in Reception to listening to books to magazine subscriptions to events, festivals and author visits, a love of reading is an intrinsic part of our ethos and curriculum at Simon Balle.